An unbroken multi-year diet of Saturday-matinee, Grade B westerns at the now-gone Mott Theater in the city's West End convinced me and my childhood friends that fistfights, shootings and killing could be, well, sorta fun. What else were we to think?
Week after week during the late '40s and early '50s, we watched as either Roy Rogers, the Durango Kid, Sunset Carson, Eddie Dean, Johnny Mack Brown, Hopalong Cassidy, Red Ryder or any number of good-guy cowboy stars dispatched to Boot Hill at least six bad guys per movie. All westerns during that era shared the same essential features: No one ever got hurt badly enough to cry, gunshot wounds never drew blood, there was no such thing as a funeral, the bad guys always showed up on the screen the following week, and the starlet, regardless of the plot, was always called "Miss Ann."
Those movie features, except for Miss Ann, were also present when we played cowboys in our neighborhood. "Bang, bang -- you're dead" only required the victim to hit the ground for a few minutes. Imaginary barroom fights never resulted in actual blows or furniture crashing or falls through breakaway second-floor railings onto tables below.
Fighting and shooting at one another were wonderful ways to spend a summer day, until we were called inside to wash our hands and faces for dinner.
But as we grew older, we came to learn that all that stuff up on the silver screen was pure fantasy. We soon found out from the world around us that physical force and displays of gunfire could often lead to unbelievable trauma and death.
Now let's leave the Mott Theater of my youth and turn to the District of Columbia of today. As of last Wednesday 74 people had been killed by violence in this city this year, a 25 percent increase over the number at the same time last year. That is no fantasy. The fallen won't be back next week. Murder has a way of concentrating the mind on the distinction between reality and make-believe.
But between the worlds of fantasy film and our homicide-induced funerals are other faces of violence that often go unrecognized, even when encountered on the streets. I saw some of them on Tuesday.
There were, at one point, 10 young men and one young woman in the sunlit room. Each, of course, had his or her own distinct personality, but all shared something in common: They were urban African Americans with spinal cord injuries caused by gunshot wounds. Each was either a quadriplegic or a paraplegic, likely in a wheelchair for life.
They were in the National Rehabilitation Hospital for their weekly support group meeting with clinical psychologist Samuel Gordon and Michael Countee, former director of a National Spinal Cord Injury Association project called PEACE (Prevention, Early Intervention, Assistance, Counseling, and Education and Employment). PEACE is a five-year-old program in Washington that counsels and educates people with spinal cord injuries caused by violence. Countee describes the young men and woman as belonging to a group that has "the fewest resources to cope with the largest number of challenges for the longest period of time."
What he means is that these gunshot survivors are in a category all to themselves: mostly young men without medical insurance or the support of strong and stable families. Youths who are also short on education and job skills, who can't walk, can barely move their arms and who will probably live wheelchair bound (or "wheelchair liberated," depending on your point of view) for the rest of their lives.
The young people I met had already gone through the stages of learning how to physically cope with their disabilities, mastering such basic skills as grooming and personal hygiene -- managing catheters and their bladder and bowel functions, getting in and out of a shower, moving safely from one part of town to another. But learning how to turn over if you fall on the floor doesn't alleviate the fear and despair that intrude when you least expect them -- despair brought on by feelings of abandonment when friends no longer come around, fear that creeps in when you can't find work to support yourself or don't have enough money to hire a visiting nurse to help you get out of bed in the morning or clothe and feed yourself.
And so we talked about conditions they face on their long journey to reintegration -- about the MetroAccess bus drivers who won't help quadriplegics with packages that are too heavy or bulky to be placed on their laps, about the difficulty of shopping in stores with narrow aisles, about curbs without cuts, about people who look on them with pity.
These faces of violence, largely African American and Hispanic, are showing up on urban streets across America, thanks to an overabundance of guns and drugs and a shortage of strong families, good schools and jobs.
They are, as Countee says, the casualties of the daily wars of the underclass. But the youths in the chairs aren't the only ones paying dearly. Their annual medical costs run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, with federal, state and some local governments picking up most of the tab. That money comes out of everybody's pocket.
Still, the violence that breaks spinal cords is just below the radar screen of most people in the suburbs. Sadly, young kids in inner cities know the problem all too well.
A few years ago, one of the young men in the support group accompanied Countee to a D.C. junior high school for a violence prevention program. The students wrote thank-you letters to both men after the visit.
Much of my world, when I was their age, was make-believe. Not so with them. Listen as the children speak:
"Thank you for coming and telling us what can happen to us if we go in a gang. . . . My uncle died from a gun, and one got shot in the eye. But my life is good for me. . . . your friend Christopher H."
"When you were talking about your life, I was getting ready to cry. My uncle got shot in November in his leg for no reason. My other uncle got shot and now he is paralyzed for life. Thank you for coming to visit us. . . . Erika C."
"I will keep you in my prayers. My sister, my cousin and I were only outside playing and it was a drive by shooting and we didn't know we could have got shot and our spinal cords could have been injured too, but thank God it wasn't. One time my cousin got shot in her leg. It made me think about what that one little bullet could to do somebody. . . . Lark B."
"To tell you the truth, I can't believe that before your lecture, I was thinking about getting a gun. Not thinking about how a gun killed some of my family and friends. I am a small girl that many people try to pick on. Like a fool, I thought that a gun would let them know that I am not a punk. But with the gun I really am the punk, and also the fool. You really helped me open my eyes. Krystal R."
Guns, shattered spinal cords, quadriplegics, wheelchairs for life.
Hollywood and Roy Rogers never told us about that.